Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire

(Rykodisc 1998)

Fans of the Squirrel Nut Zippers shouldn't be surprised if they find the music of Andrew Bird and his infamous Bowl of Fire to be particularly pleasing. Bird himself moonlights as a guest violinist for the Zippers, and has snatched away the talent of their female vocalist, Katharine Whalen, for this musical gem. Reader beware, however, that the stylings here are far different than the big band/swing of their squirrely counterparts. They are, perhaps, far more unique. The gypsy-like music sounds authentic, and evokes the idea of folk in a far different way than that which Bob Dylan has popularized. This is folklore, twisting bits of bluegrass, eastern European, jazz, and even, seemingly, Jewish/Israeli folk songs into the mix. The gypsy theme ties everything together, but an errant guitar riff or a stand-up bass throw all predictability out the window. Furthermore, the music is consistently and intentionally tinged with a static that adds to the mystery and that "old time" feel.

Likewise, the lyrics are brilliant. Bird is known for penning intelligent lyrics, and "Thrills" certainly corroborates this affirmation. Whalen's wails are still reminiscent of Billie Holiday, but her croons are sadder, more serious. "That blissful dream of childhood has ended," she laments on the seventh track, "A Woman's Life and Love". Bird's lyrics have changed her tone completely. A favorite lyric comes from the enigmatically named "Eugene": "Studies have shown/That we like sheep are prone/To sure fatal doses/Of malcontent through osmosis/But don't be sympathetic/Just pass the anesthetic/Because sheep are benign/And on the young we will dine". Cynical, perhaps, but assuredly insightful. Unlike many groups, where either the lyrics or the music are "take it or leave it", Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire weaves the two together so well that it's almost impossible to imagine one without the other.

Certainly, "Thrills" is a one-of-a-kind, unprecedented album. It sweeps the listener into smoky lounges, gypsy campfires, and circle dances... all at once, somehow. The album reeks of cool; Bird has created perhaps a most unique genre of modern music that, as of yet, no one has been able to match.